Our greeting tonight is Tzom Kal -May we have an easy fast.
Tomorrow morning we will read in the Torah that on this day, each year, we are to offer a series of sacrifices to atone for our sins and we are to practice “Self-denial” a term that the Sages teach means we must fast from tonight until the stars rise tomorrow night. In fact, fasting is the most singular ritual for Yom Kippur. And yet, after reading in the Torah that we are to Fast on the Day of Atonement, then we will read in the Haftara this passage from the prophet Isaiah:
“To be sure they seek me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why when we fasted did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and you oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? NO, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. … Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry He will say “Here I am”. If you banish lawlessness from your midst, the threatening hand, evil speech and you offer your bread to the hungry, to satisfy the famished creatures, then shall your light shine in the darkness and even the gloom will be like noon.”
Isaiah, in our haftara, lashes out at those who think that just because you are fasting, it does not mean that something in your soul has changed. Ritual is not magic. In magic, you say the right words and “Presto” the result you desire appears before you. Ritual requires fewer words and more intention. God looks to our heart to see if what we are asking is what we believe.
I remember a movie where comedian Jim Carrey was given a chance to be God. He heard the prayers of millions of people who wanted to win the lottery. So, he decided that they could all be the winner. Millions of people won the lottery and divided the prize so many ways that they each won less than a dollar. It was not quite what they had prayed for. I have never been a big fan of Jim Carrey but I have to admit that one of his famous quotes rings true in my ear. He said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
As we embark on this day of prayer and repentance, we should heed the advice of the proverb that reminds us to be careful what we pray for, because we just might get it. Often, we want some reward so badly that we don’t think through the long and short-term consequences of what might happen if our prayers were answered exactly as we desire.
It would be hard to enter this season of reflection and repentance without looking at the state of our country and the state of our society. I am not going into a political rant here. Each of you can go to your favorite source of public opinion and hear there someone telling you what you believe and what you want to hear. You don’t need a Rabbi to gauge the political climate in this country.
But just because we want the country to be one way or another, does not mean that we fully understand the long and short-term consequences of our wishes and prayers. We may ask God for a solution to whatever political problems we perceive but, alas, we don’t listen to Isaiah and understand that our word and our hearts are in two very different places. Isaiah reminds us that this is not how to get God to listen to our prayers.
So, let me get this out of the way right now. There is no political solution to what we think ails this country. Both sides are wrong, and both sides are right. Either side will solve some problems and create other problems. And the deeper, real problems, the challenges with no clear solution, will continue to eat away at our society.
Just five years ago, in 2012, an eternity in terms of the news cycle but a blink of an eye compared to the scope of Jewish History, the writer/producer Aaron Sorkin, put a sarcastic rant into the mouth of actor Jeff Daniels who was playing the part of Will McAvoy in the HBO series, “The Network”. When challenged that America is the greatest country in the world, the cynical network anchor, McAvoy, went on his rant for about five minutes listing the myriad reasons that the United States, by many measures, is no longer the greatest country in the world. Just Google “Jeff Daniels Is America The Greatest Country” and you can hear Sorkin’s rant for yourself.
But after listening, we should ask ourselves, in the past five years has anything really changed? We don’t like to hear, as Americans, that our country has problems anymore then as Jews we like to hear about political problems in Israel. This country is one of the wealthiest countries in the world (but not number one) and yet we regularly squander our wealth and the responsibility that comes with it.
In Judaism we teach that with wealth comes greater responsibility. True, even a poor man has an obligation to give Tzedakah, but the wealthy have a greater obligation. Ruth Messenger, the founder of the American Jewish World Service, an organization committed to helping lift third world countries out of poverty, noted in Sh’ma magazine this year the following items:
“When I take Rabbis into the developing world, they report that their worst moment is when they return home and enter a supermarket selling 50 kinds of breakfast cereal.
We often speak of ‘what we need’ when we really mean ‘what we want’. It is not that we should not have the item but we must distinguish between wants and needs.
The U.S. has 4.5% of the world’s population but uses 20% of the world’s energy.
Americans throw away two hundred THOUSAND pounds of edible food daily.
The richest eight people in the world have assets equal to those of the 3.6 billion poorest people in the world. (half of the world’s population).
Food excesses are common in the world but close to a billion people go to bed hungry every night.
Ruth Messinger concludes by adding, “Of course no one answer works for all of us, there is, instead, the imperative of asking the questions/of discussing the options and then making decisions as to how we – individually and collectively – will respond.” But these questions are not asked, nor are they discussed.
Rabbi Haskal Lookstein once said that he hated to give a sermon on Kol Nidre night. Everyone just had a big, heavy meal and they just want to go to sleep. And yet, for about a billion people this day will be like any other day, just another day without food. Today, for us will be like every day for a billion people, just another night where they go to sleep hungry.
There is a famous story of a woman on a beach watching another man throw starfish, washed up on the sand by a storm, back into the ocean. She said to him, “Why are you doing that?” He replied that if he doesn’t the starfish will die. “But there are thousands of starfish on this beach for miles and miles, you can’t save them all! What difference will it make if you save a few starfish?” The man picked up another one and threw it into the ocean. “Made a difference to that one”.
It is true that our one congregation in Manchester can’t feed a billion people. Still, some of us filled a bag with the food we will not be eating over the next 25 hours and brought it here to be donated to the food pantry. You can sleep better tonight knowing that at least one person will have food this week. It may seem like a drop in the bucket but it made a difference to that one family.
We wanted to be the richest nation in the world but when we got our wish, we found that it did not make us the greatest nation. It is not just how we squander our resources. Isaiah, Aaron Sorkin and Ruth Messinger tell us that the real issue is a moral problem that diverts God’s blessings away from us.
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, a Hasidic Master who lived at the end of the eighteenth century, once said, “I learned how we must truly love our neighbor from a conversation I overheard between two drunken villagers. The first said, “Tell me, my friend Ivan, do you love me?”
The second said, “I love you deeply.”
The first one said, “Do you know what gives me pain?”
The second one replied, “How can I know what gives you pain?”
The first said, “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say your truly love me?”
The Rabbi concluded, “to love, truly to love, means to know what brings pain to your friend.”
“Where does it hurt?” This is a question that we don’t hear so much anymore. How can we claim that we “love our neighbor as our self” if we don’t know what hurts her? How can we say that society cares about us if we are not sure that other people understand what hurts us?
Ruby Sales is an African American social activist, who marched in Selma and who has dedicated her life to social justice and equality. Last year, in an interview by Krista Tippett, she spoke directly to the hurt that is ignored in this country. Ms. Sales said, “I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is how can we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who is heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today. … I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying at a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear that coming from anyplace today.”
What does it mean to be fully human? That is not just a theological question but one that cuts to the center of the life we live in these modern times. We live today with this sense that life no longer matters. We live in a world where life can be extinguished in the blink of an eye. I am not talking about nuclear war, although that has again become a consideration, but the fact that terrorists can drive a car into a random crowd of people, and then jump out and stab some of the people they missed. We are reminded that this day could be our last every time we are asked to take our shoes off before a flight. A clash of ideas can suddenly become a physical confrontation where people can die. Some people have to worry that a simple interaction with a law enforcement officer can escalate into a deadly encounter. Climate change has brought stronger, more deadly storms to our homes bringing death and destruction in its wake. How can I worry about the hurts of others when I am feeling so much hurt inside?
Ruby Sales goes on: “What it means to be humans, we live in a very diverse world, and to talk about what it means to be humans, is to talk about my experience as an African American person, but also to talk about my experience that transcends being an African American to the universal experience. So, I think we’ve got to stop speaking about humanity as if it’s monolithic. We’ve got to wrap our consciousness around a world where people bring to the world vastly different histories and experiences but at the same time a world where we experience grief and love in some of the same ways. So how do we develop theologies that weave together the “I” with the “We” and the “We” with the “I?”
As Conservative Jews, we stand in the middle. We stand for what is unique about each human being and we also stand for building relationships between people. We have to know what we stand for and we have to know what hurts others. We can’t love our neighbor unless we understand what hurts them. Manchester is a very diverse community and we are a very diverse congregation. We have an obligation to know what will hurt the people who live around us. There will always be people who cry out loud that they are right and everyone else is wrong. That they have all the answers and those who don’t agree are idiots. We must know better. It is up to us to learn from all people and bring the best ideas forward to move our society forward, to bring compassion, justice and peace to the world.
For the next 25 hours, we will be in our own space, dealing with our own faults and working to repair the damage we have done to our relationships. But we can’t change our relationships with others until we learn what hurts others. We can have different opinions about life but we can’t silence the opinions of others. The world we seek will be built with love not hate, with understanding not shouting, with compassion and not indifference.
America will always be filled with pollical debates on a wide range of topics. That is what the First Amendment is all about. We must also remember that no one has all the answers. We can’t afford to forget, however, the theology, the morality that is the foundation upon which our country rests. We can once again be a people who care deeply about the world, a people who are not afraid of certain kinds of others who want to live in our country. We can ask our lawmakers to seek moral reasons to make laws and moral reasons to change laws. We can fight poverty without attacking the poor who live in our communities. We can be a nation that once again cares for our neighbors and is prepared to sacrifice some part of our life on behalf of another. We can aspire to intelligence and not belittle it. We can believe scientists when they tell us inconvenient truths and not just when they predict an eclipse. We don’t have to be afraid of enemies or of different thinking. We don’t have to identify who we are by who we voted for in the last election. We don’t have to be red or blue or even purple. We can just be ourselves, trying to do the best we know how to do. We only have to be ourselves and not let anyone scare us into doing or being someone we don’t want to be.
These are moral issues, not political ones. These are theological issues that can’t be solved by passing laws; the problems that plague our society can change only if we first change ourselves and the way we look at and feel for others. If we can feel the pain of our neighbors, we won’t need a Congress or a President to tell us what we need to do to solve problems. We will only need to show up, and make a difference to those around us, one person at a time. We don’t need laws that tell us how to be a moral person. We just need to live a moral life, as kind caring and compassionate people, and we can make a difference to our community and to the nation.
At Neilah, 24 hours from now, we will once again open the ark and give everyone who wishes a chance to offer a personal prayer before the gates of Yom Kippur close. Please remember to be careful about what you pray for and I humbly ask you to add to your prayers, a prayer for peace, understanding, compassion and justice. If, in the year ahead, we work to make these prayers come true, we will begin the journey to once again make our country the greatest country in the world, a land of truth, justice and compassion.
If we can’t get everything we pray for, we ask God to bless us with all that we hope for, as we say ….. Amen and Gemar tov
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Friday, September 29, 2017.